Julian Barnes’ The Sense Of An Ending

The Sense Of An EndingLater this year I will celebrate my ten-year high school reunion, and the more I reminisce with friends about days gone by, the more I realize how tenuous is my grip on the past. Names and faces have faded from my memory, and, in Barnes’ beautiful phrasing, “incidents have grown into anecdotes.” I’m now no longer sure if reunions are meant to celebrate the past or remind us of it. But my past is largely still measured in years; the protagonist of The Sense Of An Ending, like its aging author, measures his life in decades. Four decades after Tony Webster’s school days, an unexpected letter from a lawyer causes him to reassess his past, and, in the process, the narrative of his life.

The book begins with Tony’s first-person reminiscences of his adolescence and the schoolboy friendships that shaped it. Aside from their intellectual affectations – they read Nietzsche and The Communist Manifesto, and repeatedly end arguments with the phrase “That’s philosophically self-evident” – Tony and his friends present as normal teenage boys: rebellious, quarrelsome and overly concerned with sex. Barnes does a wonderful job evoking these adolescent anxieties and finding humor in them. One of these friends is Adrian Finn, an odd, bright boy, abandoned by his mother at an early age, whose passion for history – and debating with his history teacher – enables Barnes to hammer home the book’s salient theme, the unreliable nature of memory:

That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, Sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian to understand the version that is being put in front of us.

I can almost picture Barnes smiling as he typed these words, hinting at the key to the mystery. Time passes, the young boys go to separate colleges and, despite promises to the contrary, gradually lose touch with one another. Tony finds himself a girlfriend, one Veronica Ford, and, as men tend to do, further loses touch with his friends. Their relationship ends, rather badly, and Veronica shortly after takes up with Adrian, effectively ending two relationships.

Tony constructs a narrative around the breakup, one in which he is the victim of an unstable woman whose caprices are to blame for their failed relationship. Here is his assessment of Veronica, post-breakup:

I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others. Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.

In Tony’s early assessment, it is his ex-girlfriend Veronica who is ruthless, who is damaged, the one “to be careful of.” What has damaged her he does not know, though he’s happy to speculate – an abusive ex, perhaps, or some terrifying history of incest?

Tony then jumps us forward, to his present, where he is living as a divorced bachelor and father, comfortable – if not particularly proud – of the life he has lived, or at least the narrative of it he has constructed. “It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.” The arrival of a lawyer’s letter, detailing his unexpected inheritance from Veronica’s mother, forces him to question his life’s narrative and leads him, ultimately, to this sad conclusion:

…I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse – a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred – about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.

Note, especially, the use of the word “examined.” Ten years ago, in my senior yearbook blurb, I quoted Socrates’ famous dictum: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Tony Webster discovers, in the twilight of his life, how painfully true those words are.